Don Gale: Solar power will not solve our energy problems

(Photo courtesy of NuScale) Twenty-nine Utah municipalities are exploring small nuclear modular reactor technology to power their cities in a world without coal. This mockup shows an aerial view of the 12-module plant site at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls.

“Why isn’t the panda swinging?”

My wife asked that question more than once during the months when Alzheimer’s was stealing her memory and her life.

She referred to a small plastic panda on our kitchen table swinging from a small plastic tree limb. The toy panda is still there. My wife loved animals, gave our grandchildren affectionate animal nicknames and even wrote a delightful children’s book titled “Christmas at the Zoo.” No wonder I keep the swinging panda. The panda is set in motion by a miniature solar panel that powers a hidden electromagnet. When the sun shines, the panda swings, but when the sun doesn’t shine, the panda doesn’t move. I answered my wife’s question by telling her that sunshine made the panda happy. She seemed pleased with that answer.

I think about the toy panda when my friends say their business or house is “powered entirely by renewable energy.” Not exactly. What they mean is that the solar panels on the roof provide enough electricity to power the company 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But there’s a catch. Actually, when the sun is shining, those wonderful solar panels feed electricity into the electric grid, where it is used by whomever flips a switch to “on,” whether the switch-flipper is inside or outside the business or house. All of us must thank those who install solar panels. But the grid cannot save up the sun-generated electricity to use when the sun is not shining.

And at night or when snow, rain or clouds blot out the sun, the house or company relies on that same grid to deliver electricity from windmills, or from rushing water, or from natural-gas-fired turbines, or even from coal-fired generators. If not, then, like the toy panda, the house or business would stop “swinging.” And because you can’t turn large generators on and off like a light bulb; generator turbines must operate continuously; the electricity output may be reduced, but the gas or coal fires keep burning. The magic of the electric grid is that it sends power where power is needed without caring where the power originates and without shutting down power generators.

I’m a fan of solar energy. And wind energy, and hydro energy, and geothermal energy. The world needs all the energy we can generate, and the world will need a lot more of it in the future. But we know carbon emissions are killing our planet. We must find cleaner but equally reliable sources for 24-hour-per-day electric energy.

Batteries are not the answer. They are both dangerous and environmentally destructive. Perhaps some day we can invent new energy storage technologies but, in the meantime, the demand for energy will continue to grow as more and more human beings seek better health, more comfort, higher living standards and modern technology.

It seems to me that emissions-free nuclear energy must be part of the answer, at least during a transition period. Perhaps we should look to smaller nuclear facilities, as some Utah communities are wisely doing with a small nuclear facility in Idaho. We could locate small nuclear plants in cities, even neighborhoods. After all, our naval fleet has been safely powered by small nuclear generators for decades. We should be able to adapt them for inland use. (Water for cooling is obviously a challenge.)

However, the primary effort must be to devote more research money, more research minds and more research facilities to finding new power technologies. The abundant creative minds of engineers and scientists must focus on energy. Philo Farnsworth, the Utah native who invented television, thought he knew how to generate power with cold fusion, but he died before he could move ahead with it. No doubt, other new technologies could come to our rescue. (But not if we focus too much creative effort on trivia such as video games.) The universe offers endless sources of energy. We need only find ways to capture it, control it, and use it to build upon the enormous successes of those who came before us.

Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.

The message of the little swinging panda is clear: We are still a long way from resolving our energy needs.

Don Gale.

Don Gale is of the age when swinging from a tree limb evokes memories ... and even a dream or two. He first wrote about the promise of nuclear energy in the early 1960s.